In Kingston, dueling policies over masks

Health board imposed a mask mandate; school committee lifted it

THE KINGSTON BOARD of Health voted to require masks in schools last week and the following day the Kingston School Committee voted not to.

The Board of Health has no mechanism to enforce its mandate, but health board chairman Joe Casna said if school officials ignore it, “they’re acting at their own peril.”

Gov. Charlie Baker’s decision not to mandate masks in schools but to leave the decision to individual districts pushed this year’s most contentious debate to the local level. But sometimes “leave it to the locals” is not so simple, if local boards cannot agree. One observer described the cross-jurisdictional battles between health and education officials as a “pissing match.” But it is a serious one, with battle lines drawn over vital issues of health, safety, education, and personal choice.

It is a battle seen clearly in Kingston, a South Shore coastal town that is predominantly white and well-off.

The Board of Health voted 4-1 on August 9 to mandate masks in school buildings, with exceptions for eating, drinking, and medical reasons. Casna said he sees it as a “no-brainer” when the health and safety of children are involved. While he knows some people disagree with a mask mandate, “I’m on the board of health, not the board of popularity,” Casna said.

On August 10, the Kingston School Committee, at a joint meeting with three other regional school committees, voted 5-0 to adopt the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education guidelines. The guidelines “strongly recommend” masks in elementary schools and for older, unvaccinated students and staff, but do not require them. In July, the school committee rescinded the mask mandate it imposed last year, so the latest vote leaves the mask decision up to each family.

School Committee vice chair Jeanne Coleman said masks “have been a hindrance to learning,” with children being unable to read facial cues and facial expressions. She thinks it is illogical once social distancing rules are lifted to require masks in the classroom when students will be sitting next to each other unmasked during lunch. “Families should have the option to choose whether to send children in a mask or not,” Coleman said.

The contradiction upset parents like Joshua Warren, a former Kingston select board chair. Warren kept his kindergarten son remote last year and is scared to send him into a first-grade classroom this year with no social distancing and the virulent Delta variant circulating. Warren said he was relieved when the Board of Health voted for a mask mandate – and it is beyond him to understand how the school committee disregarded public health guidance. “It’s dangerous to send a child into a classroom unvaccinated with 20 or 30 kids who are unvaccinated and maybe unmasked,” Warren said.

The question of who has jurisdiction remains unresolved in Kingston. The superintendent said the school committee is continuing to meet, but referred questions about who has jurisdiction to the state departments of education and public health, which declined to comment.

Attorney Jason Talerman, whose firm represents 23 municipalities including Kingston, said the question of jurisdiction is coming up in many communities. Generally, the school committee controls school facilities, but the Board of Health can promulgate regulations covering schools when there is a demonstrable risk.

One resolution to the issue – one many Democratic lawmakers, teachers’ unions, and some school officials and public health experts want – is for the state to set the rules.

“I think school boards would be happy to be able to say we’re doing this because we’re required to do it by the state,” said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. “They’d rather be forced to make an unpopular decision because they had no alternative than to get half the community angry at them.”

But Talerman noted that Massachusetts is a “home rule state,” so towns generally have a right to make their own decisions in areas like public health.

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Baker said Monday that he is not considering changing the state’s mask guidance. Baker, a former Swampscott selectman himself, reiterated that his general position is to set a statewide standard but “let the locals make the call that makes the most sense to them.” 

“Giving locals the opportunity to own the decision they make is a big and important issue,” Baker said.